US Open golf hopefuls try to qualify for a chance

acarter@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2014 

— The parking lot at the Governors Club in Chapel Hill, one of 111 U.S. Open local qualifying sites for this year’s tournament, had emptied. Most who’d arrived with fantastical hope of advancing to sectional qualifying, and then to the Open next month in Pinehurst, had long gone home. Their dreams were over, at least for now.

Then there was Brandon Hartzell, a Minnesota native and caddy from Charleston, S.C. At a little after 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the sun dipping into the tree line, Hartzell stood alone near his black Ford sedan outside the clubhouse at the Governors Club, a tall can of beer in his hand.

He’d arrived a week ago Thursday, finished his round the next day, driven halfway home and then had come back again, thinking he might need to compete in a playoff.

Hartzell hoped to be one of six players to advance to sectionals from the Governors Club. After he finished his round in the morning, he had put his clubs in the trunk and headed back toward Charleston. He’d shot a 72 – not a great score, but one worthy enough.

He drove an hour, stopped at a Waffle House and thumbed through scores on his phone. The minutes passed and his 72 was looking better and better.

Local qualifying at the Governors Club began on that Thursday, but heavy rain postponed the finish until the next day. Thirty players withdrew, maybe because they couldn’t get off work or perhaps because they weren’t playing well and didn’t feel like coming back for more.

After his stop at the Waffle House, Hartzell thought about what to do: drive farther south or wait to see if he might need to go back. He thought there was no way his 72 would be good enough to advance outright.

“I ended up just pulling off,” Hartzell said. “And I’m thinking, ‘What the heck do I do?’ I ask somebody if there’s a shopping mall. Then I was like, ‘All right, you know – let’s find a nice shady spot and drink some beer.’ Because I shot 72.

“Let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to get in.”

They all lived the dream

The U.S. Open local qualifier at the Governors Club was among the final local qualifiers before the Open. Every year thousands sign up nationwide for local qualifiers, with the top handful or so at each site advancing to sectional qualifiers in early June. England and Japan also host one sectional apiece this week. The few who do the best in the sectional tournaments advance to the Open.

For the local qualifier at the Governors Club, a full field of 120 signed up. There was a 12-year old playing next to teenagers playing next to college kids playing next to club pros playing next to guys, a few of them, at least, with a taste of life on the professional tour.

There was a member of the Governors Club, Rex Willoughby; and one of the club pros who works there, Michael Perry; and there was a line cook, Jay “Angel” Milne, who makes his living in the clubhouse kitchen. For a day, it didn’t matter how much they had in the bank account, where they’d come from or what they did for a living. They were competitors.

For one day – or two, if they came back after the rain – they all lived the dream of finding their way to the U.S. Open.

The Open, as its name suggests, is open to anybody. At least anybody who can shoot par or close to it. To sign up for a local qualifier, players need $150 and a handicap of 1.4 or better. That’s it.

And so all over the country, players mail in their checks, show up at their local qualifying sites and hope that their drives are straight and their putts are true and that their game is good enough, on this day of all days, to keep the dream alive.

“Anyone going into it is thinking that you can kind of catch lightning in a bottle and make it work,” Perry, the Governors Club assistant pro, said after his round. “But realistically, there’s probably a handful of guys here that know going into it, OK, this is the first step.

“And the rest of us are hoping to make it work.”

A good show

By 6 o’clock that Thursday morning, some of the employees at the Governors Club had showed up for what they knew would be a long day. Volunteers had to be shuttled to their locations on the course, and a few last-minute logistical questions needed to be answered.

Most of them were directed toward Patrick Seither, the club’s director of golf:

Can players rent rolling carriers for their golf bags from the club? Are range finders allowed?

The Governors Club had hosted local qualifiers before, but not since 2006. So this was almost as important to the club as it was the players. Seither said the club wanted to put on a good show for the USGA, which runs the U.S. Open and all of the qualifying events leading into it, in hopes that the Governors Club might host more prestigious tournaments.

By 7 a.m. the practice areas were full. The first group teed off at 7:30, a threesome comprised completely of North Carolina natives – one from Denver, one from China Grove and one from Chapel Hill. Of the 120 players who signed up at the Governors Club, 92 were from North Carolina.

Every nine minutes, another threesome started its round. If nothing else, a player stepped to the first tee, had his name and hometown announced by the starter, and then began a round with the thought, however improbable, that the impossible could be possible.

At 8:06, a group that included the University of North Carolina men’s golf coach Andrew Sapp began its round. Sapp birdied the first two holes while another player in his group, Brien Davis, a pro from Charlotte who competes on the PGA Tour Canada, was 2-over after four.

Of all the players here, Sapp and Davis seemed to have as good of a chance as any to advance. They’d both competed in too many local qualifiers to count, and Davis had even made it into sectionals once. Sapp had been an alternate before, but had never played in a sectional.

“Just about every year I’ll donate my $150 to the USGA (and) try to live the dream of getting hot for three rounds and get into the Open,” he said later. “Especially when it’s at Pinehurst.”

‘I tried’

Local qualifiers are full of players like Sapp and Davis – players who, if they were two or three shots better per round, likely would be making a living on the PGA Tour. Local qualifiers are also full of others who don’t have much of a chance of advancing, but who show up anyway.

“People say you don’t try, you’re never going to get in,” said Jay “Angel” Milne, one of those long shots. “Because you’ve got to try some time. So I just give it a try.”

Milne spends his days working as a line cook inside the kitchen at the Governors Club. He was born in Guatemala, where his life was “bad – very bad,” he said, before being adopted by his American parents when he was 15.

He picked up golf when he was 21 from his adopted father and about a year later he was shooting close to par. Not long after he came to work at the Governors Club he heard that it would host a U.S. Open local qualifier. Milne told his colleagues of his intention to play.

“No, they didn’t believe me,” he said. “They thought I was joking. ”

Milne, 26, teed off a little past 11:30 a.m. Some of his coworkers from the club kitchen came out to watch, and Milne said he was nervous. He made it through a hole and a half before the rain came and finished with a 93 – last among those who played all 18 holes.

When he walked off 18, a cheering section was waiting for him. There were people he worked with. Governors Club members who’d heard his story – that a guy from the club kitchen was out there trying to qualify for the U.S. Open.

“They were so proud of me,” Milne said. “Me, I gave what I gave, but l learned a lot. I’m a little embarrassed. But I tried.”

After turning in his scorecard, Milne walked into the clubhouse. He had time to change his clothes and then he was scheduled to start his shift in the kitchen.

Hours later, another long shot finished. Akshay Bhatia completed his first U.S. Open local qualifier with a par on No. 18. That gave him an 89. He’s 12 years old and his father said this was just the beginning.

“It’s just the plan we have,” Sonny Bhatia, Akshay’s father, said. “To start at 12. Come back again next year, come back again next year, until he gets through. This is the plan we have. We don’t have expectations of anything right now. Just expectations to get better.”

This is Akshay’s final year of public school, his dad said. Next year, he’ll take his classes online and travel the country – and internationally – to compete in golf tournaments.

After his round on Friday afternoon Akshay scanned the poster scoreboards taped to the outside of the pro shop, looking for scores higher than his. He found a couple. At 12 years old, he fared better than some of the grownups. He took little solace in that.

“I know that I’m not that good right now,” he said, “but I know I can improve.”

Looking good

Davis, the touring professional from Charlotte, finished with a 2-under-par 70 on Friday and Sapp with a 73. Neither one felt good about it. Two groups later, Hartzell, the caddy from Charleston, finished with an even-par 72 and hit the road. Not a chance, he figured. Not a chance of advancing with a 72.

The hours passed and nobody put up a score in the 60s. Group after group came in. A lot of players were in the 80s. Some in the mid-70s. Davis’ 70 was looking good.

Davis passed the time with some lunch and some practice. He finally left when it became clear that his 70 would be good enough to finish among the top six – all of whom advance to sectional play.

Sapp, meanwhile, went back to his office at UNC after his 73 and “got a lot of work done,” he said.

“But then (I) kept watching the scores, and (with) about seven or eight groups left I said I better pack up and head out and see what happens,” Sapp said. “But I figured that might jinx it, and it kind of did.”

Sapp came back just in time to see Matt Younts, an amateur from Stokesdale, make a 60-foot chip on 18 for birdie. The people standing near the green went wild.

The chip gave Younts a 72 and with it a spot – the final spot – in the top six. Younts was going to sectionals. Sapp, hoping for a chance at a playoff for that final spot, instead lost in a one-hole playoff to decide the first alternate.

He’s now a second alternate for the second time. He knows it’s unlikely he’ll play in a sectional. He knows, too, that he’ll be back next year at a local qualifier. And the next. And on it goes.

While Sapp was finishing up that playoff hole, Hartzell was out in the parking lot. He’d driven nearly two hours toward Charleston, and then back two hours to Chapel Hill, thinking that he might be in a playoff.

No playoff necessary, it turned out. Hartzell, 26, was in with his 72 and off to a U.S. Open sectional qualifier for the second time. The first time, said, he made it in as an alternate in place of David Duval, who at one point was among the best players in the world.

Hartzell likes to tell the story, and chances are he’ll like telling this one, too – of shooting par and leaving thinking he didn’t have a chance of advancing. Of finding a shady place near a McDonald’s to drink beer and check scores. Of driving back, it turned out, only to see that he’d made it – that he was one tournament away from the U.S. Open.

“It got to the point where I was like, I’ve got to (go back),” said Hartzell, who carries around red, white and blue business cards with stars, a bald eagle and “professional golfer/life entrepreneur” written under his name. “I was an hour and a half, an hour and 40 minutes away from here.

“And I was like, I’ve got to start at least heading back. It’s the U.S. Open, you know?”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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